Dedication day symposium reflects on life and legacy of Dick Clark '51

By Juliana LaBianca

September 30, 2014

Beginning with a highlight reel of notable on-air Syracuse University references and ending with a nostalgic December 1957 episode of “American Bandstand,” the Newhouse School remembered Dick Clark ’51 in a symposium Monday, Sept. 29 dedicated to his career. The event concluded the dedication of the new Studio & Innovation Center, which features the Dick Clark Studios, supported by a donation from Clark’s family.

Led by Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Newhouse, the three-person panel included Eric Deggans, TV critic with NPR; Mary Ann Watson, professor of electronic media and film studies at Eastern Michigan University; and David Zurawik, TV critic at The Baltimore Sun.

After graduating from SU, Clark began his career as a disc jockey with Philadelphia radio station WFIL, and made his debut on “American Bandstand” in 1957. He was the host and a producer for “American Bandstand” for three decades. The panelists agreed that it was Clark’s remarkable business sense that made the show a success.

“The show appealed to teenagers and he was able to make that audience a commodity,” Deggans says. While other TV programs of the time targeted adults, Clark showed advertisers why it made sense to pursue a younger audience, and helped shift the cultural focus from adults to teens.

“I think his success had a lot to do with his business degree from SU,” Watson joked.

In a related display of good sense, Clark also used his clean-cut image to persuade families to invite him into their living rooms. “Dick Clark was the bridge between raunchy rock ‘n’ roll, and the rock ‘n’ roll that parents were all right with their kids watching after school.”

As the charming and dapper host of “American Bandstand,” Clark’s influence on the culture of rock ‘n’ roll is undeniable. “For the post-World War II teenage generation, high school was their job and rock ‘n’ roll was their elixir,” Watson says.

The panelists agreed that because of the show’s wide audience, “American Bandstand” and its producers were able to tap into the power of television to teach. “He taught a generation how to date, and how to act, dress and dance at dances,” Zurawik says.

“The real education was that you learned to dance and you could practice in the privacy of your own home,” added Watson.

To close the symposium, Thompson shifted gears to discuss the legacy of Clark’s “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” special and played a brief and emotional recording of Clark’s last on-air appearance during the 2011/2012 “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” ball-dropping countdown. 

Following the symposium, audience member Patricia Mautino ’64 says the panel offered her a new dimension of Clark’s life and legacy.

“For me this was a wonderful nostalgic return to my youth,” says Mautino, who is also a member of the SU Board of Trustees. “In some ways I’d love to go back to those days. They were so simple and pure and fun. We really connected through this music and those memories.”

Juliana LaBianca is a senior magazine journalism major in the Newhouse School.

Photo by Tara Schoenborn, of the Newhouse School.